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Pacers hold off Thunder, No. 1 seed within grasp

I like it much better when the Indiana Pacers are underdogs. And that’s exactly what they were, even at home, against the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder are the worst matchup in the entire league for the Pacers, and the last time these two teams met the Pacers were on top of their game and still got spanked, 118-94, by far their worst loss of the season at that point. With the team in disarray over the last couple of months, the Pacers were looking like they might end up being at the wrong end of another blowout loss.

Instead, despite playing far less than their best basketball, the Pacers somehow still prevailed against a team with the league’s scoring champ and MVP-in-waiting who’s rounding into fine form heading into the playoffs. Final score, 102-97.

The Pacers now have a half-game lead over the Miami Heat and can clinch the East’s No. 1 seed, their goal since the start of the season, by winning their final game, on the road against Orlando on Wednesday. For those who don’t remember, the last time the Pacers were down there on Feb. 9 they squandered a big lead in the 4th quarter and lost by 1 point when Paul George decided to pull up over three defenders instead of passing to either one of his wide open teammates. Some might point to that loss as the point the Pacers started falling apart. So it will be poetic justice if the Pacers can clinch their goal with a win in their final game against the Magic, especially as their “magic number” for clinching is one.

Of course, the Pacers won’t even need the win if Miami loses against Washington on the road on Monday night, though I don’t quite see that happening. And there’s just no way the Heat will lose to Philly in their final game on Wednesday. Still, it would be good if the Pacers can control their own destiny.

This afternoon’s victory was in many ways an anomaly. The Pacers won despite themselves, which could be regarded as a good sign. They racked up a grotesque 21 turnovers (downgraded from 23 after the game). Roy Hibbert was a vomit-inducing 0-9 from the floor and had zero points (though he did have 6 rebounds, including 2 on the offensive glass — baby steps, Roy), while George Hill backed up his goose egg against the Heat with…wait for it…3 points on 3 shots in 23 minutes. They allowed Kevin Durant to score 38 points and Russell Westbrook to get 21, 9 and 7.

So how did the Pacers win? Well, CJ Watson happened. Quiet Storm had a huge 20 points off the bench including 4 of 7 three-pointers, Luis Scola had 10 points as his mid-range shot appears to be finally back, and Ian Mahinmi picked up the slack for Roy Hibbert by contributing 11 and 5 on 4-4 shooting. Evan Turner didn’t score but he only took one shot and had 4 excellent assists. His defense wasn’t too atrocious either. I like that he’s trying to find his place and not force the issue. If the Pacers bench can contribute something not too far off this every game in the playoffs they’ll be hard to beat.

For the starters, Lance Stephenson put up his 5th triple-double of the year with a solid line of 17, 10 and 11. He also hit a big three with 34 seconds left to give the Pacers a 6-point lead one possession before David West blocked a Kevin Durant three-pointer. Speaking of West, he went into beast mode and led the team with 21 on 9-11 shooting. These two guys were solid tonight, and it’s important to point out that they played within the flow of the team’s offense. Lance, in particular, was not trying to just stuff the stat sheet — he played to help the team win by doing everything he can in all facets.

Paul George was in foul trouble in the first half but still finished with 20 points on 6-17 shooting. He also led the team with 12 rebounds. It’s hard to ask for more with him having to guard Durant as well.

The problem still lies with Hibbert and Hill. The Pacers won’t get very far in the playoffs with these two playing like this. Remember when Hibbert went through a horrible stretch at the start of last season and needed to see a shrink? Well this is worse. With all his “selfish” teammates getting their acts together, he needs to look in the mirror and do the same. When the team was killing it at the start of the season he said that he was just focused on defense and that anything he gave the team offensively was a “bonus”. He needs to get back to that mentality and not look for his shot. Do his job on the defensive end and on the glass and let the buckets come to him where they may.

As for George Hill, I think he must be hiding an injury somewhere. To pay a guy $8 million to take 3 shots in 2 games is inexcusable. His aggressiveness has been sporadic all throughout the season, but right now it’s completely non-existent. If he doesn’t turn things around soon he might not be a Pacer next year.

Having said all that, it’s good to see the Pacers pull out a victory against one of the top 3 teams in the NBA. Let’s hope they can build on this and gain some momentum heading into the playoffs. If they earn the first seed they’ll play Atlanta, and if not they’ll take on Charlotte. Neither will be easy, but if the Pacers had to choose I’d say they’d pick the Hawks because they don’t want no part of Al Jefferson.

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